'Limetown': TV Review | TIFF 2019

Serviceable, but not inspired.
10/16/2019

Facebook Watch's creepy new podcast adaptation stars Jessica Biel as a reporter investigating a decade-old mass disappearance in a Tennessee town.

If the criminally under-the-radar Sorry for Your Loss reflects on Facebook's best aspects, Facebook Watch's latest original series Limetown plays to the social media platform's trashiest side. That isn't to say that Limetown, based on a popular mystery/suspense podcast, is awful. It's mostly a bit dull and insufficiently expansive. But if Limetown breaks out in a way that Sorry for Your Loss, thus far, has not, you'll know why.

Sorry for Your Loss, which boasts a performance from Elizabeth Olsen that, in a just world, would be Emmy-nominated, feeds into Facebook's desire to build community and make people feel less alone and more holistically connected to anybody and everybody whose lives they've been a part of. Limetown feeds off of the fake news/conspiracy-mongering side of Facebook, the part where we're all so disconnected from empirical truth that we'll latch onto any lunatic with a YouTube channel or crackpot with a blog to find confirmation of our canted worldview. Mind you, Limetown has very little in common ideologically with a QAnon obsessive or your friend from high school who's now an anti-vaxxer, but that's the instinct.

Jessica Biel, a series executive producer, plays Lia Haddock, a journalist with American Public Radio. Lia has been investigating the disappearance of over 300 scientists, researchers and their families from a self-contained company town in Tennessee over a decade earlier. The mystery, which briefly dominated the headlines only to get lost in the churn of the 24-hour news cycle, fascinates Lia on a personal level because her uncle Emile (Stanley Tucci) was one of those who vanished. Unfortunately, Lia has hit a dead end and her editor has given her a strict deadline to turn in a story, however thin it may be. Fortunately, things are about to start getting weird and, as paranoia mounts, Lia is about to begin to learn the truth about the experiments taking place in Limetown, including a discovery that those disappeared citizens maybe aren't so disappeared at all.

The series is adapted by podcast creators Zack Akers & Skip Bronkie, along with familiar TV veterans like Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg. The two episodes airing at the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of the show's Oct. 16 premiere were directed by Rebecca Thomas (Stranger Things) and, for the most part, mirror the opening episodes of the podcast, albeit using Lia's late-night visitation by a mysterious and violent figure as an in medias res bookend. The incident opens the first episode, closes the second episode and means that if these two episodes are roughly a half-hour apiece, they're also padded with repetition. Still, the structure adds variation to what otherwise would have been two episodes of simmering, glum tension and little else.

The game in expanding podcasts to TV — a game that we're only in the nascent stages of playing — is figuring out how to keep the strengths of the initial medium and, at the same time, adding a visual component that justifies the translation at all. This is why Sam Esmail's directorial flourishes on Homecoming, those appropriations of Hitchcockian grammar and '70s flair, were so essential, because they took the core of the podcast and let the series grow as its own thing. It can't just be, "It's the exact same thing, only now we can see it." That, frustratingly, is what Limetown very frequently is. Most of what makes Limetown work as a podcast and again as a TV show is the rich sound design, appropriate given the main character's profession, yet limiting. Instead of a podcast about a radio producer, it's now just a TV series about a radio producer, which mostly means a lot of Biel doing hipster cosplay, waving fancy microphones and staring at audio levels.

Thomas and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood have chosen, I would say, to accentuate the eerie normalcy of this constructed town that has been evacuated for many years, not necessarily a bad call, but a call that prevents any deep unease from setting in. There's very little scale to wherever in Vancouver has been entrusted with standing in for the Tennessee settings, and I can count on one hand the times that I felt the imagery added to the sense of unease in the series — and surely it was supposed to or why bother making a TV show at all?

By keeping to the running time of the podcast and keeping, initially, to the episode-by-episode structure, there's literally no room for expanding the world of the story. Having an actor with Tucci's range and recognizability as Lia's uncle provides built-in value such that you know Emile is important to the story, you have some warmth for him and you maybe wonder whether or not he's trustworthy. That has nothing to do with added dialogue or characterization. It's just Tucci.

The same isn't true of Lia's producer, Gina (Sherri Saum), and co-worker, Mark (Omar Elba), barely introduced as characters in the initial episodes. Kelly Jenrette makes a more vivid early impression as one of Lia's first interview subjects. That's about it. It's mostly Biel's show and, as she did in her season of The Sinner, she makes the most of the opportunity for de-glammed intensity. Her character isn't interesting, but she's consistently stressed and Biel plays it well.

A 44-minute episodic running time could have given Lia more room to be a character, could have given supporting players the chance to have personality traits and, most important, could have given Limetown the chance to feel like something richer than the first act of an X-Files episode before Scully and Mulder show up and the plot really kicks in.

We're already three years beyond the premiere of the podcast, but you're out of luck if you were hoping for any insight into how audio storytelling has evolved or for some conscious awareness of how the streaming/social platform Limetown will be airing on feeds' conspiratorial instincts. Again, what this is all lacking is context and breathing room. Maybe that'll come as the first season progresses and the opportunity to leave the podcast behind presents itself. So far, Limetown is a mood, sustained by its vague whiff of oddity and Biel's ability to be consistently watchable.

Cast: Jessica Biel, Stanley Tucci
Creators: Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, from their podcast
Premieres Oct. 16 on Facebook Watch.